Using stats to rank offensive performances in our NBA Game Score Rankings 2020
NBA Game Score Rankings 2020:
- FGM- Field Goals Made, 3FGM- Three Point Field Goals Made, FTM- Free Throws Made, TS%- True Shooting Percentage, eFG%- Effective Field Goal Percentage, “T-” means a tie
This article was written by Spencer Young with BBall University.
THIS NBA SEASON saw a lot of great performances. Whether it be the historically dominant Milwaukee Bucks with MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo and All-Star Khris Middleton, or the Lakers, with the two-headed monster of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, or the Clippers, with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and a host of elite role players, the league saw a resurgence in competition and level of play this season.
The rising level of play didn’t extend to only the top teams either. Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard, Devin Booker, and Zach LaVine were just a few names among the players putting up ridiculous stats on non-playoff teams.
Additionally, the two-man race of Zion Williamson and Ja Morant for Rookie of the Year provided many insane stat-lines throughout the season. Last year’s Rookie of the Year favorites, Luka Doncic and Trae Young, also had two sophomore seasons for the record books.
So who was the most dominant player this season? Who, regardless of their circumstances, had the best performances this year? In seeking out the answers, I utilized the Game Score formula, a statistical valuing of traditional box-score metrics. Essentially, the higher the game score, the better a player’s box score numbers and efficiency. This was the basis for our NBA Game Score Rankings 2020.
To put into context how dominant the top players of this season were, according to Game Score, eight of the top-50 games ever occurred in 2019–2020 alone — hence my listing of these eight games.
Game Score = Points Scored + (0.4 x Field Goals) — (0.7 x Field Goal Attempts) — [0.4 x (Free Throw Attempts — Free Throws)] + (0.7 x Offensive Rebounds) + (0.3 x Defensive Rebounds) + Steals + (0.7 x Assists) + (0.7 x Blocks) — (0.4 x Personal Fouls) — Turnovers
Without further ado, here are our NBA Game Score Rankings 2020.
To add context to the level of performance this season, I included two strong performances that did not make the cut as one of the top-8 games this season. Note the high point totals, efficiency, and all-around level of play — which correlates with the high Game Scores — in the two following performances.
LeBron James vs. the Dallas Mavericks, November 1, 2019
39 points, 12 rebounds, 16 assists, and 4 steals; Game Score: 40.8
About to turn 35-years old, in his 17th season, LeBron James led his new-look Lakers to a victory over the Luka Dončić and the Dallas Mavericks early in the 2019–2020 season. Despite being low scoring for much of the evening, this matchup turned into an overtime thriller, with James and Anthony Davis proving to be too much for Dončić and the Mavericks.
With a stat-line reminiscent of his other-worldly performances in Cleveland, James went an efficient 13/23 from the field, 4/9 on three-pointers, and 9/11 at the free-throw line. Statistically, this game ended as James’ best this season, as he filled the stat-sheet and finished the game as a +15.
As the Lakers tried to pull away from the pesky, young Mavericks, they isolated their two best players — James and Davis — over and over again, which worked out in their favor.
Not only was this game a precursor of the resurgent season James was about to embark on, but it also shows the level of performance seen throughout this season. At a game score of 40.8, this performance was great, yet it didn’t reach the historic standard that was set this season in our NBA Game Score Rankings 2020.
Eric Gordon vs. the Utah Jazz, January 27, 2020
50 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals; Game Score: 43.2
Here’s an unexpected name. Eric Gordon of the Houston Rockets, who struggled with inconsistency and injury throughout this season, nearly posted a top-10 game score of this season with his 50-point masterpiece against the Utah Jazz.
With James Harden and Russell Westbrook out — and with the Rockets only having nine healthy players — Gordon led Houston past a strong playoff team, on the road, no less.
With very little offensive options, Mike D’Antoni turned to Gordon, a very athletic guard whose performance had only declined slightly in recent years until this season’s injury-hit campaign. The game was like watching the younger, more spry version of Gordon on the pre-Chris Paul L.A. Clippers.
With him driving to the rim or shooting threes exclusively, Gordon finished the night going 16/20 on free throws and 6/11 on three-pointers. The statistics from this performance are staggering: an 81.2 TS%, a 77.3 eFG%, and, most impressively, a 90.9% free-throw rate.
At a Game Score of 43.2, in any other season, Gordon’s performance would have been among the best, but he didn’t reach the historic standard set this season — putting into context just how impactful many players were in 2019–2020.
With these examples in mind, here are the eight best performances of the 2019–2020 season, according to Game Score.
8. Kyrie Irving vs. the Chicago Bulls, January 31, 2020
54 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 19/23 FGM, 7/9 3FGM; Game Score: 45.90
While still processing the loss of his friend and mentor, Kobe Bryant, the Nets’ star guard Kyrie Irving paid tribute to him in the most fitting way possible: by replicating Bryant’s dominance with an efficient 54-point masterpiece.
Irving went 10 for 10 in the first half, scoring on a variety of creative finishes, three-point jump-shots, and mid-post isolations — with a level of guile and grace that Kobe would’ve been proud of. Missing only 4 shots all night, Irving had a mind-numbing 98.5 TS%, as well as a 97.8 eFG%, two statistics that account for the varied values of 2-pointers, 3-pointers, and free throws.
In his most profound sequence of the night, to end the first half, Irving scored a fast-break layup with 4.9 seconds remaining. As the Bulls threw a lazy inbound pass towards half-court, Irving picked off the pass, recording a steal, and launched a deep three-pointer from the “A” in the “Barclays Center” logo to beat the buzzer.
In his post-game interview, after becoming the first Brooklyn Nets player to have multiple 50-point games, Irving dedicated the performance to Kobe, even mentioning that the “Mamba Mentality” was his motivation to keep pushing, even as his team struggled through injuries.
7. James Harden vs. the Orlando Magic, December 13, 2019
54 points, 5 rebounds, 7 assists, 10/15 3FGM; Game Score: 46.20
In an anticlimactic 130–107 victory over the Orlando Magic, James Harden went on a tear, scoring 54 points on a combination of high-volume and high-efficiency. By December, Harden was still carrying a historic load offensively, evidenced by his 48.2% usage rate in this game.
With no guards quick enough to stay with him on the perimeter, and Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac both being ineffectual to stop Harden from shooting, Orlando had no answer for Houston’s isolation attack. It’s probably no coincidence that Harden had a 60-point triple-double against this same Orlando team just two seasons ago.
Frankly, the reality of Harden’s game paired with Mike D’Antoni’s offensive philosophy is that Harden is capable of performances like this many times in a season. When he makes his step-back threes, there is no other scorer in the game like Harden.
For instance, last year, in his season series against Orlando, Harden went a combined 5/29 from three-point range, including a performance where he went 1/17 on three-pointers (and still scored 38 points). This year, he made his highly difficult, contested, step-back threes and he instantly had one of the top-50 performances ever according to Game Score.
It’s hard to say if fans and pundits have devalued Harden’s scoring exploits. After all, he does this every season, on an almost nightly basis. But, in fairness, while the numbers and statistics might claim Harden is putting up some of the best numbers we’ve ever seen, it’s hard to overvalue a random 50-point night against a mediocre Orlando team.
T-6. Damian Lillard vs. the Brooklyn Nets, November 8, 2019
60 points, 5 assists, 19/33 FGM, 7/16 3FGM, 15/15 FTM; Game Score: 46.80
In a duel with Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets, Damian Lillard tried his best to overcome the combined talents of Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie (67 points combined) and his own co-star’s struggles, as C.J. McCollum went 4/19.
The result was a then career-high 60 points, which was also a Blazers franchise record. None of Brooklyn’s guards could keep up with Lillard, who repeatedly drove at Jarrett Allen to either draw fouls or get easy looks at the rim. As he gained a rhythm, Lillard began shooting more three-pointers, finishing with 7 makes from three-point range on the night.
Lillard had a Box Plus/Minus of 26.2, the only player over double-digits on his entire team this night. And, with a usage rate of 41.9%, Lillard truly gave his all trying to will his team to victory.
Ultimately, despite Lillard scoring 60, the Nets’ backcourt of Irving and Dinwiddie were only outscored by the Blazers’ backcourt by one point, and Brooklyn persisted for a 119–115 victory, spoiling Lillard’s great performance.
Looking back, this game was a foreshadowing of the season to come for Lillard — both in terms of his historic performance and his team’s disappointing results.
T-5. James Harden vs. the Washington Wizards, October 30, 2019
59 points, 3 rebounds, 9 assists, 18/32 FGM, 17/18 FTM; Game Score: 46.80
Whereas Harden’s performance against Orlando was boring and meaningless, this game against the Washington Wizards was exciting and tense — if for no other reason than neither team deciding to play any semblance of defense. Heading into the second half, both teams were nearly had 80 points, and Houston allowed Washington’s Bradley Beal to score 46 points of his own.
Down 139–147 with just over 3 minutes remaining, however, it was Russell Westbrook, and not Harden, who took over the game. Westbrook scored on a driving layup, converted a tip-in layup, and scored another layup while being fouled to give Houston a 156–155 advantage.
But with the score tied at 158-all, Harden drew a foul on Washington’s Isaac Bonga and split a pair of free-throws to give Houston a one-point win.
Some of Harden’s numbers from this game are astounding. He posted a 154 offensive rating, paired with an equally disastrous 147 defensive rating. He also had a terrific 36.0 assist percentage, paired with an efficient 73.9 TS% and a 65.6 eFG%.
Again, should this be remembered as a historic offensive performance, or should it be taken as a massacre on one of the NBA’s worst defenses ever? The Wizards this season were a surprisingly elite offensive team behind Bradley Beal, but their defense, as shown in Harden’s performance, was simply atrocious.
4. Damian Lillard vs. the Golden State Warriors, January 20, 2020
61 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists, 11/20 3FGM, 16/16 FTM; Game Score: 48.40
Amid a historic scoring tear, replicated only by scorers like Kobe Bryant, James Harden, and Michael Jordan, the Trail Blazers’ superstar guard Damian Lillard scored 61 points to try and continue his team’s playoff push.
On MLK Day, Lillard set a new career-high for scoring, and he broke the previous record for most points scored on the national holiday.
The Warriors led for much of the night, with D’Angelo Russell scoring 27 points and Alec Burks scoring 33 points. But with relentless drives to the basket and incredible long-distance shooting, Lillard carried the Blazers in the fourth quarter to close the gap. And down 113–110, Lillard brought the ball up, isolated on Burks, and hit a tough, contested, step-back three-pointer. Everyone in the arena, including the Warriors, knew Lillard would go for a game-tying shot, but there was nothing they could do to stop on this night.
Whereas James Harden’s repetitive, slow, waltz-like step-back threes become repetitive, Lillard’s stop-and-go, explosive style-of-play seemingly never gets old. And, this season, Lillard added another element to his game, stretching his three-point range to the team’s logo (and yes, unlike Trae Young, he makes these shots at an efficient rate).
“I mean, there’s [nothing] more you can do,” TNT commentator and former player Reggie Miller said after Lillard hit his 10th three-pointer. And if Lillard’s shooting from the field (17/37) was only slightly more efficient, this performance might have become one of the top-20 games ever, according to our NBA Game Score Rankings 2020.
3. Anthony Davis vs. the Minnesota Timberwolves, December 8, 2019
50 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals, 20/29 FGM; Game Score: 48.50
In an explosive, high-scoring 142–125 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Anthony Davis showed the historic talent that made L.A. mortgage all of its future assets in exchange for him.
Minnesota had no answers for Davis, as they tried defending him with a combination of the undersized Robert Covington, the inexperienced Jordan Bell, and Karl Anthony-Towns…who isn’t known for his work ethic. In the half-court, the pick-and-roll attack of LeBron James and Davis was lethal, and if needed, the Lakers simply posted up AD in one-on-one situations.
But the biggest adjustment the Lakers made was committing to their transition attack more than ever. Rather than attempt to grab rebounds, the Lakers had Davis leak out to the other end. From there, coach Frank Vogel trusted in LeBron’s remarkable, quarterback-like passing ability to find Davis with a full-court outlet pass.
LeBron finished with 13 assists to go along with his 32 points, and Davis only missed nine shots the entire night, good for an offensive rating of 160. In fact, the entire Lakers starting lineup had incredible offensive ratings, with LeBron, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, JaVale McGee, and Danny Green posting offensive ratings of 141, 130, 205, and 196 (no, the 205 is not an exaggeration).
So what does this mean? Well, the Lakers have been criticized for not having a primary shot-creator outside of LeBron, but if this game was any indication, they can make up for this disparity in shot-creators by playing the transition game (it doesn’t hurt that LeBron is, you know, LeBron, and will probably average well over 30 points per game and 10 assists per game in the postseason).
2. Damian Lillard vs. the Indiana Pacers, January 26, 2020
50 points, 6 rebounds, 13 assists, 8/12 3FGM, 14/16 FTM; Game Score: 49.60
With his team still seven games below .500, Lillard was still on his historic scoring surge as he pushed for a playoff spot, and this coincided with his 50-point explosion against the Indiana Pacers.
In the first quarter alone, he scored 17 points, going to the line 8 times, scoring multiple contested three-pointers, and driving to the rim for multiple layups.
With 13 assists, Lillard also facilitated at an elite level — which not all scoring guards do in today’s NBA. When Lillard isolates, there is no answer to stop him outside of double-teaming him. While he doesn’t shoot as many step-back threes as James Harden, Lillard has arguably the deepest range in the entire NBA, and his driving ability is almost on par with Kyrie Irving and other elite finishers.
It’s incredible to see an undersized, 6′ 2″ guard take over entire games with his scoring ability alone. Lillard isn’t built to take hits like Harden, he doesn’t have the natural hand-eye coordination of Steph Curry, and he doesn’t have the top-line speed of Russell Westbrook, but he performs at an All-NBA level regardless.
1. James Harden vs. the Hawks, December 30, 2019
60 points, 8 assists, 16/24 FGM, 8/14 3FGM, 20/23 FTM; Game Score: 52.40
And finally, at the top spot in Game Score in 2020 is James Harden. There are no surprises here. Really, who else could have been expected to take this spot? Harden is the most prolific volume-scorer of the 21st century, and his combination of volume and “efficient” shot-selection means that, when he is on a roll, there is no parallel to him as a scorer.
And when an injured, unprepared Atlanta Hawks team came into Houston, they were hit by a historic avalanche of scoring from Harden and the Rockets. With rookie De’Andre Hunter guarding him, Harden scored 13 points in the first quarter as the Rockets led 38–21.
By the second quarter, the massacre continued, as behind a flurry of step-back threes and strong drives to the rim (and free-throws, of course), Harden had 31 points as Houston led 81–52 heading into half-time.
Harden made his last three-pointer with 8:40 to go in the third quarter, his eighth of the night, giving him 43 points, yet he still found a way to score seventeen more points before the quarter ended, finishing with 60, just two shy of a career-high, as the Rockets demolished the Hawks by 47 points.
Per Game Score, this was the 10th best performance ever in an NBA game, a full 17 spots ahead of Damian Lillard’s 50-point outing against the Pacers, and leading our NBA Game Score Rankings 2020.
When comparing eras, today’s modern style of basketball is often devalued, with older generations lamenting the lack of pure skill and physicality in today’s game.
But, in reality, I’m not sure there is a more skilled era in basketball history. Today’s players are more efficient than ever, more skilled than ever, and quite possibly better than ever. The three-point craze has turned back some older fans from the game, but this is a simple evolution of the sport, given the point values assigned to given shot attempts.
This isn’t to say that our NBA Game Score Rankings 2020 is a perfect measurement of performance, as it does value games with high point totals, particularly from high-volume of three-point attempts. But, throughout this piece, I’ve tried to highlight the fact that today’s players are simply putting up numbers that are mind-blowing when taking other advanced metrics into account, like TS% and eFG%.
The list itself doesn’t make James Harden, Damian Lillard, or any other player one of the best players ever (and, to be clear, Michael Jordan isnumber one on all-time Game Scores), but it does speak to the rising level of play in today’s game — an idea not reflected by those who favor the “grit and grind” ideology of basketball from the early 1990s and early 2000s.